The Joy of Looking
It is between Romanticism and Realism, the two most prominent visual arts movements of the first half of the nineteenth century, that the language of modern painting was constructed. Our understanding of what it means for particular subject matter to achieve representation through paint took place over the span of these two movements. But the rate at which subsequent art historical movements have intervened make it seem as though the issues raised during that period have lost their currency. In reality, it is to this period that the history of modern painting owes its momentum. If anything, the issues of that period have gained currency and it is through the work of Julia Fish that one can see how much has accrued.
Fish’s relationship to the roots of modern painting may not seem immediately apparent. Her work is usually summarized as walking the fine line between representation and abstraction. The most revealing piece of information, however, comes by way of the painters who have influenced her work. Of the diverse range of artists Fish cites, several, most notably Albert Pinkham Ryder, Myron Stout, Martin Johnson Heade, and John Kensett, were heavily under the sway of Romanticism. Romanticism qualifies as the first avant-garde movement in that it defined itself against a religious as well as a classical Greco-Roman past. Romanticism’s most significant triumph was the elevation of landscape painting from a humble genre to one which rivaled if not replaced history and religious painting. It was the natural world rather than the figure set in an historical or mythic narrative which increasingly became the means through which artists chose to represent the spiritual, emotional and psychological self. The natural world was worthy of representation not because of an inherent aesthetic beauty but because its forms, systems, cycles and patterns were visual metaphors for the inner and otherworldly. When looking at a painting, to glimpse behind the world of appearances in hopes of comprehending a truth or essence of a larger social, religious, and metaphysical order, was to experience the sublime. But the sublime required an arresting image, one capable of soliciting the gaze of truth. Despite the fact that Fish never uses the word “sublime” when referring to her work, when she describes paintings she admires as ones which “hold their breath,” she is referring to a gaze associated with the sublime.
It is not simply a concern with natural phenomena that links Fish to Romanticism but the contemplative gaze of the sublime which she has cultivated in her own work. Fish’s paintings and drawings are meticulously crafted and her subjects are realized in layers. Paint is applied, scraped then reapplied until she arrives at the final surface which often holds traces of the most delicately applied brushwork, a beautifully controlled congealing of paint or an incisive mark offering a fleeting glimpse of the surface’s previous life. Fish combines this rich tactile quality with a modulation in subtle tones of color. From a distance outside of four feet, Grove, whose large jagged forms recall the paintings of Clifford Still, appears to be a work of hard edge abstraction executed in only four colors. Standing within two feet of Grove, however, reveals a surface teeming with a medley of oscillating blue-greens, violets and ochres. Even Summer Pine, a work which seemingly dismisses the subtlety of Grove, has woven throughout its acidic, antifreeze green surface streaks of red, blue and yellow. For all its prick and sizzle, Summer Pine still invites us to visually loiter.
All of Fish’s paintings call attention to the act of looking. Not only are we conscious of the pleasure derived as we consume through viewing, but seeing in this manner is to raise a set of philosophical issues about how much we can know through seeing and how the painted image mediates our understanding of what is represented. Although these issues were raised during Romanticism, the implications of this manner of seeing did not surface until a century later with the development of abstract or non-representational art. Rather than treat Abstraction as distinct from Romanticism and Realism, Fish’s work exhibits a keen historical hindsight by linking them. While works such as Floor, Floor II, and Siding are based on detailed observations, these paintings could be described as both highly realistic and abstract without compromising either term. Fish insists on the legibility of her subject matter and, in her words, “uses abstraction to purify or distill an image.” In this sense, abstraction is not a code or visual language independent of mimesis but is instead a means towards better translating an objective reality into paint. Siding is a literal translation, not interpretation, of the faux brick facades which cover hundreds of humble, single-family homes throughout Chicago. As subject matter, it is instantly recognizable.
But Siding’s degree of verisimilitude also betrays characteristics which make this painting qualify as abstract. Most notable are its composition and point of view, particularly the way in which it is cropped, and the degree of integrity Fish has displayed to both the materials and picture plane. Fish uses the weave of the canvas, particularly the way the twill collects paint, to echo the sandpaper grain found in her source. Just as Siding is recognizable as a subject, it also situates itself within a history of abstract paintings, pattern paintings in general and grid paintings in particular. Like its abstract siblings, Siding lacks a recognizable central focus and any allusion to depth is eliminated. The slightly skewed step-grid pattern created by the light and dark rectangles forces our vision to zig-zag across the canvas. There is no relief from the picture plane which invites us to lose ourselves in thought as we scrutinize its grains, its grooves, and its muted hues.
Siding represents a development that has become increasingly apparent in Fish’s work over the last four years, namely the collapsing of the picture plane as window with the picture plane as the literal support for pigment. On a formal level this is synonymous with the historical link between Abstraction and Realism. The shift from picture plane as window to picture plane as support for pigment occurred most dramatically between these two movements. When Realists distinguished themselves from the Romantics by favoring a more objective and less sentimental and picturesque approach toward their subjects, this did not mean a more ‘realistic’ portrayal of the subject. In fact, it meant the opposite. Realists were the first modern painters to acknowledge the artifice of their craft beginning with its materials. But acknowledging the materiality of paint was at the service of better understanding the subject. As art historians Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner have observed, Realists “by emphasizing the painting as representation,” which is to say the material nature of painting, “confirmed the existence of what is behind the representation.” This statement could just as easily apply to Fish’s work.
In order to collapse two seemingly antithetical functions of the picture plane, i.e. something you look at versus something you look through, Fish has had to renegotiate perspective. Almost all of Fish’s work resists our ability to locate within the picture frame a horizon line. Even when she places us directly before a subject for which an allusion to form and hence the illusion of depth would normally be required, she still manages to construct an image more accountable to two dimensions than three. At the same time there is no compromise in how much she reveals about the subject. Small Birch, for example, derives its veracity not through a subtle shift in values which would suggest a cylindrical form, but through a play of contrast between the tree and the dark background, and by tightly cropping a to-scale portion of the tree’s irregular contour within a small rectangle. In the more recent works, especially those depicting ground planes, walls and views through the windows of her home and studio, Fish is even more explicit about her intentions. In Grey Sky, Roof Window, Transom, and Transom II (Twilight), the picture plane is a literal substitute for a window pane. But again, we could just as soon be looking at these windows as through them.
The rich surfaces of these paintings and their flat frontal position displaces our need for a horizon line which would only serve to order the pictorial space in a hierarchical manner of foreground, middleground, background. This traditional figure/ground relationship, while it successfully translates our understanding of space from three dimensions into two, also defers our experience of the subject. Fish’s work forsakes the illusion of depth in favor of a chance to experience her subject matter as objectively as representation in paint allows. Her subject matter is not simply brought up to the picture plane, but is literally translated into paint on the picture plane. In Transom and Transom II (Twilight), Fish overlooks the forest and the trees in favor of the ivy. The splendor that is nature is not revealed in the awe-inspiring cymbal crash one hears when standing before a nineteenth century Luminist landscape. It is instead the humble shush of ivy nesting in the transom overhead.
The Realists emphasized the painted surface in reaction to academic painting, which hid the labor involved in crafting a painting behind a highly polished surface. Unbeknownst to them, the Realists, were slowly unleashing the forces of ‘pure paint,’ forces with which Fish would have to contend. Fish’s relationship to Abstraction, however, is far from reactionary. If anything, Fish has a reverence for Abstraction which is borne out by the fact that she is incorporating and not rejecting its principles. For Fish abstraction is inevitable when reality achieves representation through paint. Unlike abstract painters who would celebrate paint as an end in itself free from an objective reality and the function of mimetic representation, Fish identifies an instance where abstraction is near at hand, even abstraction in its purest form. Of all places to undermine that standard bearer of pure abstraction, namely the monochrome, Fish has chosen a subject that is perhaps all too familiar. For anyone from Chicago, nothing could be more of a moot if not mute point than a grey sky. While a cursory glance at Grey Sky might recall the paintings of, say, Gaylen Gerber, a closer inspection gives way to subtly modulated peachy pink hues. It doesn’t take long to realize that this same effect occurs when dense cloud cover mingles with the glow of sunset or captures the reflected lights of the city below.
But to speak of pure abstraction is impossible without reference to Piet Mondrian, whom Fish acknowledges in several works. The life of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) is synonymous with the development of abstract art. Mondrian’s concerns with the translation of an objective reality into a set of universal principles governing representation can be traced from his early portraits and studies of nature, through his cubist phase, and on to his later grid paintings which consist of black, white and the three primary colors, red, blue and yellow. Although Mondrian distilled reality down to pure painterly terms, he still insisted on arriving at this translation through an objective relationship with his subject matter. Mondrian’s tree studies which date from 1913-1914 capture the transitional period between his more representational works and his later abstract grid paintings. Although these works are based on direct observations, Mondrian subjects the bows of the trees to a geometry that dissolves their closed form into a series of shapes that rest flat on the picture plane.
As a translation of the natural world into an abstract geometric pattern, these paintings serve as an historical precedent for Fish’sGarden Drawings. Through the repetition of marks within a single drawing and the variety of marks from drawing to drawing, Fish creates a diversity of forms which suggests the diversity found in nature. Likewise, Fish’s fascination with the grid is also a tip of the hat to Mondrian’s later paintings. Floor and Floor II, however, in as much as they are an homage to Mondrian’s grid paintings, are also works any Realist would have admired simply for their subject matter.
When describing what was required of an artist undertaking the creation of a Realist work, Gustave Flaubert wrote, “One must keep the horizon in sight and at the same time look at one’s feet.” Nothing could be more true of Fish’s work. Realists such as Gustave Courbet were ideologically opposed to much of the academic painting of their time because it not only denied the materiality of paint but also because it excluded the everyday as subject matter. For Fish, whose humble subject matter is derived from her immediate surroundings, the exclusion of the everyday is unthinkable. The everyday is the true repository of not only the sublime but also the abstract, both of which are potentially situated immediately under foot.